Family homelessness 'at crisis levels' in N.W.T., says YWCA

The organization is serving more than 100 homeless families in Yellowknife alone — and the COVID-19 pandemic has only made the crisis more urgent.

Organization is serving more than 100 homeless families in Yellowknife alone

'In Yellowknife … the problem is serious,' said Hawa Dumbuya-Sesay, executive director of YWCA NWT. (Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC)

The Yellowknife YWCA is calling for urgent investment in affordable and transitional housing as the pandemic pushes family homelessness to "crisis levels."

A release sent Monday says without "significant investment," more families will be without safe and permanent housing, even as winter's coldest months approach and the COVID-19 pandemic wreaks havoc on the economy.

The organization provides emergency and transitional housing to more than 100 homeless families in Yellowknife, including 156 children. Their wait list for support is more than 50 families long.

"In Yellowknife … the problem is serious," said Hawa Dumbuya-Sesay, the executive director of the YWCA NWT. "That's a pretty high number, given our population."

Dumbuya-Sesay said the issue of child and family homelessness is often given less attention than adult homelessness in Yellowknife, with many homeless families "well-hidden" from public view.

"You don't see them on the street, you don't see them day to day," she said.

"Because when you have a family and you have children to care for, you always have to think about their safety and well-being."

'Couch to couch'

Instead of living or lingering on the streets, the release says, homeless families are "often moving from couch to couch and living in dangerously overcrowded, unsafe, and unaffordable housing."

That has only been made worse by stay-at-home orders during the pandemic, she said, which have left vulnerable families feeling less safe than ever in crowded, shared family homes.

Even so, evictions haven't stopped — the territory's Justice department confirmed seven had been carried out during the pandemic so far.

Even when families are housed, Dumbuya-Sesay said, kids can be left neglected as parents are forced to take two or more minimum-wage jobs to meet the expense of a family apartment.

"Parents have to decide whether they have to go to work or stay home and care for your children," she said. "So many families can't afford to do both."

Lynn's Place in Yellowknife provides two- and three-bedroom apartments for families in need of housing. The local YWCA has applied for funding to expand the building and add 21 new units. (Hilary Bird/CBC)

More transitional housing awaits approval

The YWCA is waiting for approval of a proposal sent to the Canadian Mortgage Housing Corporation, which would see them expand their Lynn's Place transitional housing by 21 units.

"We really hope they approve our application," said Dumbuya-Sesay. "We have our fingers and toes crossed."

Even if it's approved next month, it will still not make up for the loss of more than 30 transitional housing units in 2018's Rockhill apartment fire.

The YWCA also rents market units, which it then subleases to tenants unable to secure market housing because of debt or poor tenancy records.

But the organization is running up against a wider housing shortage in Yellowknife.

"Even finding units that we can rent … is a challenge in itself," said Dumbuya-Sesay. "We really need the infrastructure."

Now, the YWCA is launching a campaign to raise awareness about the issue of family homelessness, and hopefully generate some more investment from organizations across the board.

"I think we really need to start finding solutions," she said. "We need to start working together."

Based on an interview by Loren McGinnis